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(photo credit: Associated Press)
An Italian judge indicted 25 suspected CIA agents and a US Air Force lieutenant colonel in the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric who had been under investigation for recruiting Islamist fighters.
Friday's indictment paves the way for Italy to put the Americans, along with five Italians, on trial in June in the first criminal case involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.
The Americans have all left Italy, and it is unlikely that they would be turned over for prosecution, even if Italy requests their extradition, a move that would strain relations between Rome and Washington.
All but one of the Americans have been identified as CIA agents, including the former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady and former Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli. The other is Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph L. Romano III, who was stationed at the time at Aviano.
Prosecutors believe that many of the American names in the indictment are aliases.
All the US agents have court-appointed lawyers, who say they have had no contact with their clients. In Italy, defendants can be tried in absentia.
Prosecutors allege that five Italian intelligence officials worked with the Americans to abduct Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.
Nasr was allegedly taken to Aviano Air Base near Venice, Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany, and then to Egypt, where he was held for four years and, according to his lawyer, tortured. He was freed earlier this week by an Egyptian court that ruled his detention was "unfounded."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said "this is an issue that is before the judiciary in Italy" and declined further comment.
The CIA did not comment Friday on the case, which has put an uncomfortable spotlight on intelligence operations and increased US-European disagreement over combating terrorism.
The Swiss government this week approved prosecutors' plans to investigate the flight that allegedly took Nasr over Swiss airspace from Italy to Germany. And a German prosecutor recently issued arrest warrants for 13 people in connection with the alleged CIA-orchestrated kidnapping of a German citizen.
Italian prosecutors say the alleged kidnapping operation was a breach of their country's sovereignty that compromised Italy's own anti-terrorism efforts.
Nasr, who had the status of political refugee in Italy, was under investigation for terrorism-related activities at the time of his abduction, and Milan prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest more than two years after he disappeared from Milan, while he was in Egyptian custody.
British opposition Conservative lawmaker Andrew Tyrie, head of a parliamentary group investigating allegations into CIA flights, said he hoped the criminal trial would expose those involved in the "repugnant practice" of rendition, or moving terrorism suspects from country to country without public legal proceedings.
Subjects of rendition have said they were tortured in the countries to which they were transferred.
"If British and European governments do not want to face the embarrassing prospect of being shown to have kept the public in the dark about rendition, they had better come clean on what they know, and fast," Tyrie said.